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After the Election

Wednesday 22 November 2006, by Donald Cucioletta

The results of the November 7th elections are in and the Democrats have wrested the majority in Congress from the Republicans. The Democrats will now preside in the House of Representatives and have majority control over the committees and the agenda.

Winds of Change?

In the Senate their majority control is a little more tentative, as Senator Joe Liebermann re-elected as an independent will hold the deciding vote. Nevertheless the democrats after sitting in a minority role for the past 12 years now have the legacy of controlling the legislative agenda. Nancy Pelosi, the new Speaker designate of the House of Representatives, considered a liberal left Democrat, has vowed to make the 110th Congress, a showcase for liberal reform over the next two years. While Senator Harry Reid a moderate liberal and, the democratic majority leader in the Senate, has set his focused on the Bush administration’s Iraqi policy.

The Democrats in the House, because of their margin of victory (Democrats 232- Republicans 203), will have a wider scope on which to maneuver, while the Senate (51-49 in favor of the Democrats) will be more of an up hill battle. Therefore we can expect the House to take the lead, in any confrontation with the president on issues of foreign policy, traditionally the domain of the Senate. Even though the message sent by the electors, was primarily directed to Bush’s failed policy in Iraq, it was also a signal to both Republicans and Democrats, to create a working atmosphere of bi-partisanship and pragmatic governance. In many ways if the Democrats do not deliver, this victory could turn out to be the kiss of death for the 2008 presidential.

Iraq the Centerpiece

From the early beginning of this mid-term election, everyone knew that Iraq would be at the center of the concerns of the American people. Similarly to 1968, when the war in Vietnam was the issue and had forced President Lyndon Baines Johnson to withdraw from the presidential ticket, the war in Iraq had now become the albatross for George W. Bush and the Republican Party. The Republicans have paid the price, but the Democrats must now be very careful, because they could also pay the price if they fumble the ball on Iraq. Un-intentionally the onus of Iraq has now shifted to the Democratic majority in Congress. They will have to create a bi-partisan consensus in order to pass their agenda on this war. Fortunately for the Democrats, many moderate Republicans have distanced themselves from the Whitehouse and the failed neo-conservative policies in Iraq, and should become strategic voting allies. In many of the gubernatorial races, Republican candidates for governor, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger in California, refused the administration’s help on the bases of the unpopularity of the war. This could also help the Democrats, in Congress and across the country, in an attempt to turn the tide on the war and on the influence of the conservative agenda on the country.

Even though the Democrats have taken the Congress, make no mistake the conservatives of all factions are not ready to lay down and disappear. For many such as syndicated columnist George Will, this set back could turn out to be a positive sign. Conservatives according to Will, after having been in power for over two decades had become complaisant, corrupt and had forgotten Reaganite principals of small government. The replacement of the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, by Robert Gates, an ex-CIA director and close to George Bush Senior, signals not only the possibility of a change in strategy with regards to the war, but also that the Republicans in the Whitehouse have heard the message from the electorate and are now willing to put the Iraqi war into the hands of the Democrats. The expectation of a more moderate approach in the Pentagon, tells the Democrats: OK we will try to do it your way.

The highly expected report from the Iraq Study Group, headed jointly by the republican moderate James Baker ex-Secretary of State under George H W. Bush and democratic moderate Lee Hamilton, ex-Representative in Congress, is also a forewarning that the recommended scenarios will place the Democrats in a commanding position on Iraq. Expected at the beginning of December 2006, rumors are already circulating that there will be four major scenarios proposed by the study group.

 A complete withdrawal of American troops within a period of 18months, and replaced by a well trained Iraqi force.
 A complete withdrawal of American forces, with a rapid deployment force stationed in Kuwait, subject to recall by the Iraqi government.
 A partial withdrawal of American forces, supported by a UN force made up of Asian countries.
 A total withdrawal of American forces supported by a UN Asian force with Syria and Iran as diplomatic partners.

The tendency within the study group according to outside sources and James Baker himself is to adopt a very conciliatory position, one advocating a sharing of responsibilities with the international community, an approach advocated since 2004 by the Democrats. The once hawkish Henry Kissinger has now mellowed and admitted that there can be no military solution in Iraq. In order words traditional conservatives, followers of a small government philosophy domestically and of a Wilsonnian realistic approach internationally, are abandoning the neo-conservative strategy and willing to seek support among Democrats.

Even the Pentagon, as reported on the front page of the Washington Post edition of November 20, 2006, has tabled a report chaired by General Pace Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that suggests three options for Iraq but no time frame. Labeled by some as the Go Big, Go Long, Go Home report, it suggests:

 Send in more US troops
 Withdraw partially and work with the Iraqi forces
 Withdraw completely and let the Iraqi’s on their own.

It is very interesting that within all these forth coming options from the Pentagon, the Iraq Study Group and the Whitehouse, there is no mention that the Iraq war was a mistake from day one. Weapons of mass destruction (the main reason of the invasion), were no where to be found. The struggle against terrorism, another reason given to convince the American people for this war of occupation, has not produced any proof to connect Saddam Hussein with terrorist groups in the Middle East and beyond.

The discourse now voiced by the Whitehouse, the Pentagon and the Iraq Study Group, is that the Iraqi’s are to blame. They have not held up their side of the bargain to promote democracy, to create a ‘bonne entente’ among the different groups of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds and have been ineffective in preventing the civil war that is leading Iraq into chaos. In looking for a solution the Unites States has started to hold responsible, for their total failure, the people they were supposed to liberate. In other words in this case they have learned from Vietnam. In order to avoid the debacle of 1975, place the onus on the Iraqi’s while completely omitting the trumped up reasons that have lead to the useless deaths of 3000 American GI’s and coalition forces and over 600,000 Iraqi’s.

The failure of the Bush administration to lead the Republican Party to another majority in Congress may have led to this slight change of heart on Iraq. However there are still some republicans who want to maintain an aggressive policy in the war. Senator John McCain, a presidential hopeful in 2008, believes that the administration should send in more troops (50,000 per year) to solidify Baghdad and then expand the operations into the rest of the country. William Kristol and Robert Kagan, fervent defenders of the neo-conservative strategy and editors of the radically conservative Weekly Standard also want a more troops on the ground, before any attempt to implement an exit strategy. Charles Krauthammer conservative columnist for the Washington Post also wants a higher troop level, and postulates that any exit strategy should put the blame on the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people for not contributing sufficiently to the war.

With all these different hypothetical scenarios, and bolstered by a less recriminating discourse from the Bush administration, the Democrats have to be aware of the many pitfalls tendered by the conservatives that await them.

The Democrats: A House Divided

Before we become too intoxicated with the democratic victory, it remains important to understand that the Democratic Party does not necessarily have a common platform. President Clinton, his allies within the party and the Democratic Leadership Conference controlled by the Clintonites, took the Democratic Party once a party of the liberal left from the days of FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and shifted it towards a right of center position. Strong on left leaning social issues but also strong on right wing laissez faire policy. Today this position would be called the third way. This had created great animosity from the left wing liberals who chastised this ideological shift. Howard Dean’s campaign in 2004 was to encourage new blood to enter the party to revert to a more liberal left agenda. We know that Dean failed.

Today the Clinton faction (right of center democrats) are still in a strong position within the party, while the liberal left after the results of November 7th have taken control of the leadership posts within the Congress and the party. Added to these two factions is a third one, the blue dog democrats, who re-entered the party after abandoning their place as Reagan Democrats, most of whom were elected to the House of Representatives from the South, the Mid-West and the South West. Basically these blue dog democrats are old style traditional conservatives, who are also close to moderate southern conservative republicans. Most of these conservative democrats are not necessarily close to the Nancy Pelosi’s of the liberal left and do create a little headache for complete consensus within the Democratic Party. Both republicans and democrats work on consensus building with the left, the right and the center within their respective parties. The democrats have taken Congress but on many issues, one of which is the Iraq war, they remain divided.

The democrats will have to compromise in order to govern. But their first comprise will probably be within their own party in order to join together their three factions. Now that they sense power this might help in building this consensus, much in the same way as the republicans when they sensed power with Ronald Reagan.

This jockeying for influential positions among these three factions will of course carry over into the presidential of 2008.

Presidential of 2008

It goes with out saying that the mid-terms of November 7th, were the starting gate fro the presidential election of 2008. The issues in the mid-terms, like Iraq, the economy, leadership, immigration (illegal or otherwise), security, the fight against terrorism, will be the same issues for 2008. Therefore depending how certain star candidates like Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and others did well, either in getting elected or helping their party in these elections will determine how they are perceived on the one hand by their own party and secondly by the American electorate.

The presidential election is still 24 months away, but the atmosphere that governed the mid-terms is a good barometer in how the American electorate is looking at the American political class. This was an election (the mid-terms) that sent a message to both parties to get their act together and govern pragmatically. Which ever party can demonstrate some bi-partisan leadership will have the edge for 2008. The fact that the Democrats control Congress is no guarantee for them. In many ways it can make them more vulnerable for 2008 if they seem hesitant on Iraq, the economy and security.

* Donald Cuccioletta is Senior Research Fellow Center for the Study of the United States, Raoul-Dandurand Chair in Strategic and Diplomatic Studies, University of Quebec at Montreal